THOUGHTS BEFORE SHOOTING
Instead of jumping right into shooting any subject, I work at giving thought to where I want to go visually. Am I documenting or interpreting? How much of the subject do I want in the frame? And, so on. The one thing I don’t do is approach a subject with my camera and lens already attached to the tripod with legs fully extended. I may need to change my lens, and often, I’ll need to lower all the sections of the legs. So, I’ll carry the tripod separate from the camera and stuff a few lenses and accessories in my bag.
Again, I’m pondering. What Is the subject? If more than one of a group, which one is the “star” and which are the supporting characters? I keep asking myself questions. Why this one? What made me stop? Where do I need to stand, kneel or lie down to get that “star” in the frame as I envision? What lens and accessories are best to start with to tell that story? Once I figure out my position, placement and perspective, I take some practice shots without the tripod to further refine my starting point. Then, I bring in the tripod or other support and lighting tools to begin.
Other choices we need to make (sometimes challenging) include what aperture we need to use for appropriate depth of field and where to place the focus. In addition, do we use auto-focus or manual? It depends.
Selective focus and shallow depth of field is a part of my shooting style. However, some subjects require a small aperture to record as much detail as possible. Getting parallel to your subject is one way to maximize DOF, but it’s not always the best angle for the composition you’re after. Focus Stacking is a technique for deep depth of field that can be helpful in macro to record all the detail that sometimes even f/32 won’t capture. It involves taking many images (on tripod) at different focus points. It takes practice and a thoughtful approach to achieve the results you’re after. Even if your camera will do the work for you in terms of taking the images, you’ve still got to learn the steps for post-processing. Having a vision and working out the steps in the field and in post are important. If you want to use shallow DOF, then where you place the edge or point of focus matters. You’ve got to “do the dance” and work the image in a logical way to get your composition and exposure in a good place first. Then, place the focus in your first-choice position (the one that makes the most sense to you). Ask yourself what areas, if not sharply focused, would bother you. There’s your starting point.
And, another consideration is whether to use auto-focus or manual focus for your macro and close-up images. It depends. My eyes are not as good as they used to be, so if autofocus works, I use it. That said, I will never let an autofocus point steer or change my composition. So, very often, I will use autofocus to get me in the ballpark and then switch to manual focus to refine according to my vision for the subject.
If you’re not sure which aperture is best, take a series of images and vary the aperture for each composition. Don’t start the next series with a different point of focus or perspective until you finish with the first. Work each perspective in the field until you have taken enough to give yourself options in post. In other words, work your subjects – intentionally. Wring out all the possibilities. Believe me, I see far too many attempts at macro image making that fall short and land heavily in the “hurry up and shoot” zone that might include only a few images, handheld, out of focus or poorly composed. If you leave before you get it “right,” you’ve wasted time. If you’re in a hurry, you cannot slow down, focus and execute your vision, unless you’re a magician.
Often, I will stay with a subject for quite a while, sometimes an hour or more. It’s not that I’m advocating this for you, but you must give your subjects the time and attention it takes to make all the pieces come together. Make sure your final frames make you smile . . . And, just for good measure, take a look at your series. Where did you start? What adjustments did you make to keep refining? And where did you land with the images you’re happy with? Those extra frames and extended time spent before you felt successful represent you working it all out. (Many of my series with macro subjects are over 20 frames and some even in the 64-frame range.) Take the time.